Questions to ask your doctor about managing pain

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Americans don’t like pain. In fairness, few people do. But one of Beaumont’s top anesthesiologists argues that Americans have become hard-wired to avoid pain at all costs, and too many doctors are willing to indulge them.

“We expect in the United States after surgery to have zero pain. But that’s not really realistic,” says Roy Soto, M.D., Beaumont anesthesiologist and member of the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Commission.

It's one of the reasons, he says, that the country is experiencing an opioid crisis. In that way, the U.S. stands apart from the health system in European nations, which rely far less on opioids to treat pain.

Doctors, Dr. Soto says, need to be upfront with their patients before they undergo surgery or other procedures that will result in pain. He says when patients go into a procedure expecting to be pain-free, but then inevitably experience some level of moderate pain, they tend to be unhappy. Whereas patients are typically much more satisfied when doctors are honest with them about the levels of pain they’re likely to experience.

Dr. Soto cites a study on postoperative pain that showed that only 63 percent of 250 patients surveyed said their doctors or other providers discussed pain expectations and management with them before undergoing surgery.

“It’s a guaranteed outcome, people are worried about it, but more than a third of the time, nobody says anything about it,” he says. “So that’s weird.”

If you’re about to undergo surgery or other procedure that is likely to cause pain, here are four questions Dr. Soto suggests you should ask your doctor ahead of time:

  • How much pain am I going to be in?

  • How long will the pain last?

  • What type of pain will I have?

  • Under what circumstances should I call you about the pain?

A good rule of thumb to benchmark your pain as 4 out of 10, with 10 being the worst, most painful type of pain. After your surgery, you should tell your surgeon or nurse if you pain is worse than 4 out of 10 and isn’t getting better despite the medication. You should also notify them if you’re experiencing any type of new or unexpected pain, or if you’re experiencing side effects from the medication you’re taking.

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